One thing I love but rarely spend time on is poetry.
I don’t have a reason for it, I have poetry books, but I tend to buy novels to read.
And there is no way in hell that I can write poetry, I’m not smart enough for all of that and it just doesn’t flow from me at all.
But I love listening to other people recite poetry, for many reasons but one of them being that you get to hear how they heard it in their heads when they read it. You get to hear which words they emphasise without direction from italics, you get to hear where they pause in the middle of a line, you get to hear when they raise their voices and when it’s in surprise, annoyance or just to be heard and you get to hear when they lower it too, whether that be from sadness or to whisper.
You get to hear their poetry. Their version of someone else’s writing, how they reimagine what someone else imagined.
I got hooked when I heard Basil Rathbone reciting ‘The Raven’, by Edgar Allan Poe from Ultimate Collection 1809-1849.
‘The Raven’, for those who may not be familiar, is a poem about one man’s descent into madness as he is stuck between wanting his lost love to return to him and the need to forget her because he cannot handle the heartbreak. There is still a lot not quite certain about the poem but one thing that is agreed upon is that it is a work of art, a classic, a masterpiece.
The way his voice quickens and then stops, the way his tone becomes more panicked and then almost curious, he raises his voice and then teeters to a whisper. I can’t remember what I was doing the first time I listened to it but I do remember getting about halfway through and something in the way his voice stopped and started in anxiety and confusion caught my attention. That’s when I stopped what I was doing, put the track back and listened again, giving it my full attention.
I quickly realised that while listening to Rathbone I noticed something different about the poem every time I heard it, and still do, and it is the closest I will ever get to hearing the poem for the first time again.
After that, while I was editing book 1 (still unpublished) I had a character quote a sentence or two from a poem that I thought would be her way of looking at writers. The poem was ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, by John Keats and I looked it up on iTunes after discovering my love for spoken word through Poe and Rathbone.
It turned out that Benedict Cumberbatch recited it as part of a spoken word album called Words For You (The Next Chapter). Other speakers include Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent. I listened to a few other poems that I had never heard and a couple of others that I had and then bought it. I’ve been hooked ever since – I could listen to Helena Bonham Carter recite my execution order and I’d be riveted. [View the album on Amazon here]
So, yes I love poetry, but I think I prefer hearing poetry to reading it. Specifically hearing how someone else hears it. One person’s recital of a specific poem could be very different from another and it tells you a lot about that person and may even give you a new way to look at a text.
And besides, do you really need another reason to hear Cumberbatch say “Kubla Khan”?
Just as an added bit, a glimpse into the video that probably awakened me to it.
Kenneth Williams (as usual) and Maggie Smith reading ‘Death in Leamington’ by John Betjeman while in the company of the man himself on Parkinson in 1973.
PS. I could also listen to these two forever. The back of cereal boxes, my aforementioned execution order, it doesn’t matter, I’d listen.